In celebration of Pride Month, Canadian Club Toronto was pleased to welcome Randy Boissonnault, Special Advisor to PM Trudeau on LGBTQ2 issues and Edmonton Centre MP this past Thursday, June 15th. Hosted by CCT Director Michael Bach, the event featured Mr. Boissonnault telling his own story, and then talking policy and history with Egale’s Helen Kennedy.
Boissonnault began with his own personal history, recounting his struggles living in Alberta in the 1970s as a deeply closeted gay man. He talked of running far away from queer spaces to avoid the suspicions of others, but also to hide from what he knew to be true about himself. In 2013, he sought out the nomination for Edmonton Centre. Boissonnault recalled having dinner with a friend who told him that a gay Francophone would never make it here, and he should return to Montreal…a place in which he never resided. Proving them wrong, he was elected in 2015.
“People will underestimate us.” he asserted. The triumphs of the LGBTQ2 community have not been without backlash, doubt and violence. Pride parades which now happen all across the globe, started small and quiet, he recounted. Boissonnault remembered marches that included as few as 30 participants. Which grew to 300. That grew to 1000’s. Toronto Pride had humbler beginnings, which can be hard to conceive when one peeks out at the sea of rainbow that lines Church-Wellesley village today. Things didn’t change overnight, and didn’t change without the bravery of LGBTQ2 people, Boissonnault pointed out. The diversification of Canadian political caucuses has in turn, been able to reflect the voices of these Canadians. This has resulted in the gained protections, marriage equality, and equalized benefits for many LGBTQ2 people.
The next big task will be expunging criminal records for LGBTQ2 people in Canada who were unfairly punished for being queer. An apology is also expected to be a part of this plan, Boissonnault said. In addition, Boissonnault is committed to better serving gender diverse Canadians, improving health care for LGBTQ2 people and providing safe and adequate housing for LGBTQ2 people, specifically youth and seniors.
There are big consequences for not getting things right, Boissonnault warned. In Canada, 13% of hate crime victims are targeted because of their sexuality/gender identity, with 40% of those victims being under 25. LGBTQ2 youth are twice as likely to be homeless when compared to straight, cisgender youth which can be the product of being thrown out by parents/guardians that don’t support their coming out. When businesses don’t contribute to fostering a safe space for their employees, it can negatively impact both parties. Boissonnault said “…it’s as if 15% of your employees just don’t show up.” There is a lot to lose and a lot at stake for LGBTQ2 folks at this pivotal time. Boissonnault affirmed that he will not sit down and shut up.
His solo address ended with a story about a friend of his and her child. Asking about the rainbow flags that lined the streets, the child’s mother educated them about Pride and LGBTQ2 folks. When asked later to reiterate what they had learned about the Pride and the flag’s symbolism, their response was simple: “All the peoples”.
Helen Kennedy then took the stage to join Mr. Boissonnault in a fireside chat. She began by inquiring about his coming out story. After being embarrassed by a classmate who used a gay slur, he decided to come out, saying: “I never wanted anyone to have power over me again.” He returned home to live a life of authenticity.
When it came down to Boissonnault’s vision for LGBTQ2 policy in Canada, Kennedy had some questions. Specifically, about the inclusion of intersex people in the community and their rights. When speaking of the “I” missing from the acronym, Boissonnault said that the government was continuing to gather information about what should be included in the acronym and how it can be standardized everywhere. Kennedy pushed harder, insisting that intersex people should have certain protections extended to them in Canada. This would include freedom from surgeries that seek to “normalize” the genitalia of intersex people by removing parts that don’t prescribe to the norm. Boissonnault said that it would need to be looked at further to make a change, and that he is currently reaching out to different groups of people as well as the secretariat.
Funding of programs for LGBTQ2 people was next to be discussed, with Kennedy insisting that there was more the federal government could be doing to provide funds. Boissonnault explained that there are certain time and policy constraints that come with releasing funds to organizations. “Money can’t be let out without a program”, Boissonnault stated. Kennedy pointed out that all of Egale’s proposals that would require government funding had been churned back to her. Boissonnault countered, saying that it takes at least 9 months to even get a budget ready. He requested the patience of LGBTQ2 Canadians in the process.
Before heading to question period, Kennedy brought up the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) in LGBTQ2 relationships. Boissonnault agreed, saying that the government was trying to determine the best and most respectful way to gather data about queer experiences of GBV. Kennedy added that according to Stats Canada, assaults against LGBTQ2 people tend to be the most violent of all hate crimes. “Yet there are never any campaigns.” she said. This lead to a brief discussion about safety and security for LGBTQ2 community centres, where Kennedy insisted that the process is lengthy and difficult and ultimately can end in rejection. Boissonnault urged community centres to apply if they are qualified. They touched very quickly on the gay blood and sperm ban before opening the floor up to questions.
An audience member named Ron stood up, asking what advice should be given to city folks looking to aid rural members of the LGBTQ2 community. Boissonnault suggested the boosting of formal networks, as well as training and equipping allies with basic terminology.
Host Michael Bach took the stage once again, to thank Randy and Helen for a lively debate and discussion. “I never thought I would be at KPMG talking about intersex people 30 years [after I came out]…but this is how things change.” It is imperative to remember where we came from, and how we got here. As Rohan Sharma, an employee of KPMG, said earlier in the night: “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” The liberties and freedoms we know now were once just something to scoff at. And though we may have a long way to go, nothing is done without conversation, and nothing is done when we refuse to speak loud enough to be heard.
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Special thanks to Randy Boissonnault and Helen Kennedy for being guests of Canadian Club Toronto. Thanks extended to Michael Bach for hosting the event.